Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling (audio)

On a recent cross-country drive, I lifted this year’s ban on audiobooks, obviously. This one took me two days of driving – a much more favorable pace at which to take in an audiobook, especially one involving suspense. Before the Ruins isn’t lightning-paced – it’s not that kind of thriller – but there was a steady building of tension.

Andy’s feeling pretty safely distant from her own past when she gets a phone call from the mother of her childhood best friend, Peter, saying that he’s gone missing. She hasn’t seen Peter in six months or so. They’ve grown apart. Asked to look for him, though, she finds herself drawn into the events of their youth. Andy and Peter were part of a close-knit foursome, with Em and Andy’s boyfriend Marcus, then joined by an outsider fifth, David, during the fateful summer that they were 18 and 19 years old. The events of that summer were followed by a nasty winter a few years later, in which everything changed. Now Andy finds herself pulled back to the old manor estate where it all went down, back when she was a disadvantaged kid with an alcoholic single mom, quick to fight and slow to trust. Perhaps less has changed than she’s realized.

The novel slips back and forth in time, flashing back to the summer of Andy’s late teens and the winter of her early twenties, and back to the present, when she is nearing 40, finally financially secure but personally unmoored. Searching for Peter means reopening old wounds that never healed, and reconnecting with people she hasn’t missed.

In its actual events, the story often left me just a little disappointed, because the conflicts felt so unremarkable: young people, hormones, sex, hurt feelings. It sometimes felt like a lot of dramatic trappings for fairly humdrum activity. The word for this one is definitely atmospheric – driven not by plot but by feeling, and somewhat less so by character. I was reminded, at its best moments, of Tana French. In the final denouement, there are indeed surprises, but it’s the sense of foreboding, the magic of place (that old manor estate, and certain locations in Italy and France late in the book), and the mystery of character that carry this novel. We only get Andy’s perspective, and because of Andy’s trauma, her self-deceit, her constant bid to reinvent herself, and her caginess, we remain unclear on much of her own internal workings; certainly the other characters are enigmas. The slow reveal of each friend’s motives, what they knew and didn’t know, makes for the most interesting mystery of this thriller.

The audio production by Kristin Atherton is lovely, with voices and accents and reinforcement of that all-important atmosphere. I definitely recommend this format.

Final verdict? Not the most masterful thriller I’ve ever encountered, but absorbing and entertaining, and did surprise me at its end. Worth the time.


Rating: 7 sodden-looking sheep.

“The Butcher of Anderson Station” by James S. A. Corey

Just a quickie here: this short story establishes the history of Fred Johnson, aka the Butcher of Anderson Station, in The Expanse universe. It only makes me want more from this series, of course. The story handles two timelines. In one, Colonel Fred Johnson is ordered to retake the captured Anderson Station, and he does so, making what appears to be the wisest military decision along the way. Then he gets some new information. In a parallel story that takes place later, the OPA’s Anderson Dawes wants to talk about it with Fred. The story cuts back and forth between the two. By the end of this quick installment (36 pages, I’m told, in print – I’ve got an ebook version), we see the Fred Johnson that we’ll meet in the bulk of The Expanse. Dawes is also a recurring character; the rest (those central to the novels) are absent here, but it’s absolutely the story of Johnson himself, so supporting characters are mostly extraneous.

This story has it all: space jargon, tough decisions and moral quandaries, interesting characters and rich world-building. It whets the appetite nicely and I’ll be looking for more Expanse, as ever.


Rating: 8 seams.

Cleaning the Gold by Karin Slaughter and Lee Child

Another quickie from Reacher, somewhere in the short story/novella range, this time from Lee Child working with Karin Slaughter, who I’ve never read but obviously I know the name. An introductory Authors’ Note tells us that the authors have been friends for decades, and that their contributions to this story are merged “so you won’t necessarily know who wrote what.” Cleaning the Gold involves the head-to-head meeting of the authors’ respective serial stars: Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Jack Reacher, retired Army MP. The former is new to me, but I like him.

In a nutshell, and with a mild spoiler, both these men are sent undercover to the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, for different reasons. Reacher’s there to catch somebody on the inside, in a crime I won’t name here. Trent is there to catch Reacher. They both have to do some figuring-out, and they have to figure each other out, too.

Like “The Christmas Scorpion,” this is a satisfying enough short story, but not a perfect one – neither Child nor the Slaughter/Child team is on par with Hemingway or du Maupassant in terms of the deft, poetic turn of masterful short fiction. It’s fine. Both leads get cute and pithy lines and the scenes that convey their characters; there is a fight scene or two. In close third person, chapters alternate their points of view, and it’s fun to see each man from his counterpoint’s perspective. There are a few layers of mystery, which is always neat, but it might be a hair ambitious for a story of this length (listed at 144 pages, but only about 100 of that is Cleaning the Gold; the rest is a preview of a then-forthcoming novel by Slaughter). It ends with an loose thread that is not entirely typical of Child’s work; he’ll leave an opening for the next installment, but not an actual loose end. I wasn’t crazy about that in the finish; I think we could have used a bit more closure, which might have helped with the neatness of the short-story-as-genre. And I do think the story would have tolerated losing that last layer of mystery.

I faltered on the very first page, too, with two details that felt very atypical of Child/Reacher. (Despite the authors’ assurances, I did feel that I could tell who was who, at least here.) I cannot imagine Reacher ever noting that “the temperature outside had already passed the boiling point” unless it were literally true, which (Google tells me) has never been recorded on earth. He’s pretty pedantic like that. Then, Will “watched a bead of perspiration drop from his nose and roll across the floor.” Something about the bead of sweat, itself, as a bead, rolling across the floor bothers me, in terms of physics. (Reading Reacher makes me extra pedantic, too?) On the other hand, a judicious number of jokes (two) about the place being “guarded like Fort Knox” went over well with this reader. And a single reference to Tom Cruise and the most unbelievable scenes in action movies, which I am reading as a joke about his (problematic) role as Reacher in two films to date, went over very well.

Maybe not my favorite thing ever by Child, but a perfectly nice way to spend a little time on my front steps with a beer and a little dog.

Also, the teaser of Slaughter’s next Will Trent novel, The Last Widow, is good.


Rating: 7 gold bars, obviously.

“The Christmas Scorpion” by Lee Child

Very short review for a very short story – I love that I can use my local library to catch up on all the little Reacher snippets I may have missed! This one took just a few minutes to read. Reacher heads south for the winter, by habit, because he doesn’t like the cold. But he finds himself outside Barstow, California in a freak blizzard, and then is quickly sucked into a plot involving a foreign dignitary and a mysterious would-be assassin. It’s a fun Reacher-style puzzle, with building tension and a whodunit, but actual violence is minimal.

Despite the title, this is not a Christmas-themed story, although there is snow.

The short format doesn’t leave room for much development of Reacher or the other players, so I think this one reads best for preexisting fans who know the background – not a great entry point for newcomers, because there’s not enough background. (Short stories are hard. This one relies on the rest of Child’s body of work.) But as a quick hit for the fans? I loved it.


Rating: 7 shadows.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

Ring Shout is a most interesting, slim, swashbuckling adventure story about hunting and fighting the monsters of the Ku Klux Klan. Here, those monsters are literal: ‘regular’ (human) Klan members are called simply Klans by our narrator Maryse, while those who have ‘turned’ are Ku Kluxes, horrifying beasts who love dog meat and wear human skins but are visible to those – like Maryse and her friends – with ‘the sight.’ What we learn alongside Maryse in the course of this story is that Ku Kluxes are not the only, nor even the worst, monsters in this world.

Ring Shout is set in 1922 and begins on the Fourth of July in Macon, Georgia, where Maryse, Sadie and Chef have set up a trap for the demonstrating Klan: a stinking dog carcass laced with explosives. We begin mid-scene and then slowly get to know our heroines. Sadie is an ace with her Winnie (Winchester 1895), and Chef carries a German trench knife, taken off the enemy when she fought in World War I; but she’s earned her nickname through her expertise with bombs. Maryse Boudreaux is from just outside Memphis, where she experienced a trauma as a young girl that has set her on the path she walks now: she hunts monsters. Maryse, Sadie and Chef are backed up by other talented and badass women at a cabin in the woods outside Macon: Nana Jean is an old Gullah woman with powers of prophecy and root magic; Molly is a Choctaw scientist experimenting on the body parts of Ku Kluxes that the hunters bring her; the German widow Emma Krauss is a folklorist and ardent socialist. It is a motley and formidable crew, backed up by a few male allies who mostly serve as helpers and sexual partners but lack the sight. (This novel attacks racism head-on, while its feminism is inarguable but resides in the background. I love it.)

My editor & buddy Dave didn’t love this book, reporting, “It felt like much more of the action-packed, wise-cracking, zombie-slaying kind of horror story than I’d hoped for. I like my menace to be a bit more subtle.” And I think his description is accurate, but it worked for me. Subtlety is not the language of Maryse or her friends; they are in-your-face angry, foul-mouthed, and unapologetic about their rage, passions, and needs.

Chapters are often preceded by ‘notations’ referring to the Shouts that give the book its title. (“A shout or ring shout is an ecstatic, transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by African slaves in the West Indies and the United States, in which worshipers move in a circle while shuffling and stomping their feet and clapping their hands,” says Wikipedia.) These notations are credited as transliterated by Emma Kraus – differently spelled but the same name as the character in the book. I was fascinated, when I looked up the author P. Djèlí Clark, to find that “Phenderson Djèlí Clark or P. Djèlí Clark is the nom de plume of American science fiction writer and historian Dexter Gabriel; he chose to publish his fiction and his nonfiction under separate names so that readers of one would not be disappointed or confused by the other.” (That’s Wiki again.) This leaves me moderately confident that Kraus and her notations are historical truths, but I can’t confirm that with anything I’ve found between the pages of this book.

Clark’s Acknowledgements paint an intriguing picture of his influences for this story, citing

The 1930s ex-slave narratives of the WPA. Gullah-Geechee culture. Folktales of haints and root magic. A few Beyoncé videos. Some Toni Morrison. Juke (Jook) joints. Childhood memories of reading Madeline L’Engle under the shade of a cypress. Juneteenth picnics. New Orleans Bounce. A little DJ Screw. H-town that raised me…

and more. (Yes, the Screw and H-Town shout-outs please me immensely.) I added one book and one album to my list, and went looking for a book I remember from childhood that plays a role in this story. In other words, Ring Shout ranges widely. It is indeed a rollicking mad adventure story, and in that sense easy to read – under 200 pages and action-packed. Entertaining and horrifying. It is a tale of the memory of slavery and of the Klan and violence. It is quietly feminist. (It is also being made into a television series.) I think I’ll be looking for more by this author.


Rating: 7 juleps.

Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews

This delightfully disquieting novel explores identity, deceit and extreme measures through two women’s shape-shifting lives.

Is it really possible to shed one’s history “as easily as a coat slips off the back of a chair” and walk away? And if so–what might one walk into? That’s the puzzle posed by the cunningly plotted Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews.

Florence Darrow thinks of her past in Florida “as a gangrenous limb that needed to be severed for the greater good.” Now that she’s landed an editorial assistant position in New York City, she can begin remaking herself. However, she can’t quite make out the shape of the new version of herself she’s trying to form. “How did one go about building up someone new? She tried on moods and personalities like outfits.” Then the opportunity of a lifetime comes along: she is hired as personal assistant to Maud Dixon, pseudonym for the electrifying and mysterious author of the biggest bestseller in recent history. Florence becomes one of just two people to know Maud’s true identity. And she finally has a model to guide her own transformation into the bestselling author and confident self-made woman she knows she can be.

Florence sinks with pleasure into her new life: living in the carriage house behind Maud’s lovely old stone house in the country, enjoying Maud’s cooking and fine wines and opera. This, she thinks repeatedly, is where she belongs, this is the life she’d choose for herself. On Maud’s advice, Florence stops returning her mother’s increasingly petulant phone calls.

But who, really, is Maud Dixon? Florence knows her name, and the name of the Mississippi town she comes from. But much of her hero’s persona remains enigmatic: Maud is unpredictable, thorny, wise and (to the Florida ingenue) perfectly captivating. Florence can’t figure out the road map to get from here to there. (Maud says that “here and there are overrated.”) Florence is thrilled to travel with her to Morocco on a research trip for Maud’s long-awaited second novel, but in the new setting, what Florence doesn’t know about her boss quickly turns sinister. Florence may not be the only one with a past she’d like to shed.

Who Is Maud Dixon? is a wickedly fun study in deception, secrets, striving and longing. Andrews’s stylish, intricate debut novel showcases deft prose and expert use of tone and atmosphere: the cooing of pigeons “had the aggressively soothing tones of a nursery rhyme in a horror movie.” What means might one justify to grasp the life she really wants and (she’s tempted to believe) deserves? These memorable pages hold one possible answer.


This review originally ran in the February 26, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 clean white towels.

The Sentinel by Lee Child and Andrew Child

Here we have it: the first book of Lee Child’s transition to his brother’s eventual takeover of the Reacher series. The Sentinel credits Lee Child and Andrew Child together, as will the next (Better Off Dead is due later this year). I have had my doubts, but I really enjoyed this installment. Hooray!

A little like Blue Moon, this plot has Reacher step into a scene in media res, where he sees something bad about to happen. (This is not an uncommon Reacher device, actually; I’m thinking of Gone Tomorrow too.) In a little town in Tennessee, the streetlight is out and the police phones are down. Something’s a little odd here, and why does everybody seem so angry at one rather nerdy man in particular?

There is nothing new about the broad strokes: Reacher takes on the PI role even though nobody really wants him to, let alone the local cops, whose job he can do better than they can. The details are rather fascinating, though. I’m not sure it always works for me when Child tries to be uber-timely (here, the Russians might be trying to hack an American election, which is a subject I’d like a break from in my fiction, I think). But that’s a personal call, maybe. I do like when Reacher finds himself a team of local amateurs, or quasi-amateurs, as he did in Blue Moon, to my great enjoyment then and again here. And I think I appreciated that we took a bit of a break from Reacher’s amorous exploits.

Instead, Reacher ends up the knight in shining armor for a dweeby, dreamy (male) IT manager, and that relationship struck me as sweet and a bit of a departure for our hero. Knight-in-shining-armor is a bit of a theme here, actually, because the opening Reacher scenes involve both his love for quality live music (and especially blues), and his tendency to stick up for the little guy. I liked that the action didn’t open with Reacher, but jumped around among a few characters whose relationship is not immediately clear. I found a few lines of dialog here and there a bit out of character – and I’m sorry I didn’t mark those to share with you, but I read this book in a day, staying up too late to finish it, which doesn’t happen much these days (because it shouldn’t; teaching has me busy and exhausted). Being a smidge out of character may be a result of bringing in a new coauthor (who, we assume, knows the Reacher oeuvre as well as anybody, but still). However, my need to finish this book in a single day is an excellent commentary. It’s been a while.

I’m shying away from plot here, as I sometimes do with Reacher, to say that this is pretty straight-on Reacher with just a few twists, already mentioned, which worked well for me. If this is the new Andrew Child style, I am sorry I doubted, and I’m looking forward to more.


Rating: 8 cables.

Forget Me Not by Alexandra Oliva

A woman with a strange past struggles with a near-future reality in this riveting, moving masterpiece of both character and plot.

In Forget Me Not, Alexandra Oliva (The Last One) introduces a strong, damaged protagonist in a near-future world very similar to our own. Captivating characters carry this absorbing cautionary tale.

It’s been six years since the pandemic. Everyone wears a Sheath around their forearm that links them into social networks, maps, business reviews and details about the people they pass on the street. But Linda didn’t grow up in this world: she was 12 years old when she climbed over the walls that circumscribed the only world she’d ever known. Twelve years old when she was thrust into a never-ending spotlight, because of where she’s come from and who she is.

Now, as an adult, she lives alone in an apartment in Seattle, terrified to step outside, to make eye contact, to interact. “People bemoan the inhumanity of her childhood, but the outside world is so much worse.” That childhood remains an enigma for much of the book, but Linda remembers running barefoot and relying on herself, a life that seems more natural and straightforward than the one she knows now. “She was limber and determined and not once in her life had someone ever asked her, Are you okay? She knew no other way but to keep going.”

Then an unusual woman moves in down the hall. Anvi seems open, forthright; Linda knows better than to trust anyone, but Anvi captivates her. She’s persistent. And she introduces Linda to a virtual reality gaming world where she feels, perhaps paradoxically, a bit more real. Reality itself begins to look less certain: “Could her whole existence simply be someone else’s side quest? She can feel the urgency with which she wants some version of this to be true. To wipe herself of responsibility–to claim it wasn’t fear but an algorithm that made her run….” When Linda’s past resurfaces, Anvi accompanies her back to the place where she grew up, to search for answers she may regret finding. Linda’s shaky understanding of her very existence is thrown into question.

Forget Me Not explores humans’ relationships with the natural world, with technology and with each other. It is far from polemic, however, with affecting characters, a real sense of urgency for their various plights and a thriller’s racing plot. Linda is deeply troubled and deeply sympathetic; Anvi is a dear, quirky young woman with insecurities of her own. This is a poignant novel of isolation, terror, misperceptions and, ultimately, empathy.


This review originally ran in the February 19, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 buzzes of the Sheath.

The Hare by Melanie Finn

A totally captivating novel to read in as few sittings as possible (beware!), often a bit disturbing or discomfiting, but always engrossing.

We first meet Rosie and Bennett in 1983. They’re on a date, which doesn’t go very smoothly, and highlights their differences. He’s older, far more sophisticated; he comes from money, while she’s a little awkward. (Or maybe just young.) She dutifully takes his cues, but the reader is immediately uncomfortable. Rosie’s perhaps not as uncomfortable as she should be.

We rewind just a bit to gather up her backstory. A childhood of privation in Lowell, Massachusetts; an art scholarship at Parsons School of Design in New York City. She’s a student there when she meets Bennett at MoMA, and is excited and flattered at his attention. And they’re off and running.

Somewhere inside, Rosie had the idea, like a stone buried deep in the Presbyterian loam of her soul, this pregnancy was punishment for being greedy. Her orgasms were rich as chocolate cake or red velvet. Layers of sweetness and dripping icing.

What lovely lines, hm? And a good example of Finn’s expressive writing, and Rosie’s rich interiority. We follow her from here over decades, eventually to rural Vermont; and I don’t think I’ll tell you much of what happens, but she grows and changes and learns so much. She’s a riveting character. While I empathize deeply with Rosie (eventually, Rose) throughout the book, there are times I disagree with or feel disturbed by her perspectives. This perhaps only deepens the connection, though, and my need to see her through.

The Hare is told in close third person, meaning Rosie is ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ but we still see what she sees, which allows for the question of whether she is really a reliable narrator. There are a few types of unreliable ones: there’s the narrator who is being deceitful and lying on purpose, and then there are other kinds, who maybe can’t see their own worlds clearly. Do I see myself the same way that you see me? Can I reliably narrate myself? Tiny spoiler here: Rosie consistently tells us she’s not much of an artist. But some others around her think she might be gifted. Who do you believe?

The visual-arts frame is a neat one – I love this stuff when it’s done right. A certain Van Eyck painting plays a small but pivotal role. And a little more subtly, Rosie’s eye for image, color, line, and perspective have an enormous impact on how we see what she sees. This is a novel with layers to it in a way that I love; I think I’ll be thinking of it for some time.

Gender is central to this book. Rosie’s position in her life, her situation in several senses, and her feelings of powerlessness are attributed to her being a woman. Her gender, and those of other characters, are always and unavoidably related to their roles and relationships. The novel itself is a commentary on gender roles; Rose eventually make explicit commentary, but she was always make implicit observations, too. The back-of-book blurb calls her “an authentic, tarnished feminist heroine,” and I think that’s about right. In some ways this is a coming-of-age story, but lasting far beyond the time in her life that we tend to think of as the coming-of-age time. She’s still growing up, as we all are (I have come to see), and I really appreciated noting that here.

Finn is absolutely expert at mood and atmosphere. We are with Rosie when she feels dread on a Connecticut (I think) back road; luxuriates in a boathouse on a fancy estate on the coast; works in fear, numb and bone-tired, in the snowy Vermont mountains. This is a book to take you out of your own life.

This review has included almost no plot summary. That’s on purpose. I want you to read this work of suspense and be as surprised by events as I was. It’s beautifully thought-provoking, often lovely, and occasionally frustrating (in that Rosie sometimes frustrated me – as I feel sure Finn intends). Haunting. The hare of the title does extraordinarily broad and deep work. I am enchanted.


Rating: 8 duck decoys.

Night School by Lee Child

My mother also reviewed this novel here. We had similar feelings.

Above-average, even for Reacher. I loved this one. It’s set back in the time when Reacher was still serving as a military police detective – maybe we need more of those; they make up a minority of the canon. Here’s the set-up: fresh off receiving a medal for “the thing in Bosnia,” Reacher is sent back to school for a course in “Impact of Recent Forensic Innovation on Inter-Agency Cooperation.” He finds himself in a room with two guys from the FBI and the CIA, respectively, in similar positions: good competent agents who’d expected better than some bullshit course in cooperation. Luckily it’s not what it seems. Reacher and his counterparts are instead assigned a top-secret mystery involving an unknown American trying to sell something to someone for an unknown reason. They can have anything they need; so Reacher gets Sergeant Frances Neagley, who we know from books like Without Fail and Bad Luck and Trouble (among others). I like her.

The action of Night School takes Reacher and Neagley (and some of his new teammates) to Hamburg, back to Virginia, and back to Hamburg again, where they tangle with some far-right Nazi-types and the mostly pretty good Hamburg police. Plus of course the mystery American and the mystery foreign interest who wants to buy the mystery thing.

I thought this one was excellent fun. I enjoyed seeing Reacher do the kind of mental detective work he excels at (a la Criminal Minds), and I enjoy seeing him still in the Army’s grasp; that system gives him something to push-and-pull with in ways that I think serve the narrative well. There is a little less physical ass-kicking here than in some Reacher novels, and that’s fine with me; that action stuff is fun here and there but it doesn’t make a story the way the mental game does. There’s also a little sex (as usual) but not in a way that takes over the novel, either. And again, I really like Neagley. The mystery itself has elements of unreality, but welcome to Child’s fiction: it’s escapist-realism, not hyperrealism.

Without spoilers, I will say that I often thought this was one of the more cinematic efforts of the series; I especially enjoyed thinking of the final action’s setting onscreen. But as long as they keep Tom Cruise as the big screen’s Reacher, nah.

This is the most enjoyment I’ve gotten out of a Reacher novel in some time. Maybe it just caught me at the right time.


Rating: 8-and-a-half backpacks.
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